Imagine if NBC News had not been able to conduct its own investigation of Matt Lauer's alleged sexual misconduct unless it received an OK from the New York Police Department. Or if Miramax Pictures had needed approval from the LAPD to fire Harvey Weinstein.
It sounds absurd, right? Yet that would become standard operating procedure at America's universities under a sweeping House Republican higher education overhaul unveiled on Capitol Hill late last month.
One provision would allow colleges to delay sexual-assault investigations at police request. If approved, the measure would be the latest in a series of efforts to roll back several years of expanding campus protections against sexual assault.
Since it was signed into law in 1972, Title IX has never been well-enforced but earlier this year the Obama administration's guidance to universities — which supported Title IX's effort to more aggressively investigate sex-assault allegations — was rescinded. This happened just weeks after vital statistics on campus assaults vanished from a federal website.
An estimated 250,000 women are sexually assaulted each year on college campuses, yet somehow higher ed is moving backward on sexual abuse when the rest of society – from Hollywood to the large media corporations to Congress itself – is boldly moving forward. This historical shift is the result of women raising their voices and uniting under banners like the #MeToo. (I also started the hashtag #LostChance to memorialize the opportunities lost due to sexual harassment and have been moved by the response.)
I stood up in higher education. But it was too soon: I was alone and my voice was not heard.
My personal experience with discrimination began in 1999, when I was hired in the vice president's office at Yale. My mission was to interact with students, faculty, and staff to improve campus safety. But in doing so, I instead witnessed how silence – and failing to comply with Title IX — was the default setting for campus leadership who, when confronted with reports of sexual assault, harassment and retaliation, were more concerned about image and marketing than safety and equality for women.
For more than a decade, I saw how colleges ignored responding to sexual predators, and how they have fallen short. My proposals promoting safety as defined by Title IX and the Clery Act – requiring the proper collecting of campus crime data – were discarded and ignored. And then I was discarded, too, pushed out of my job just before Yale paid a $165,000 fine for multiple violations of the Clery Act in 2013.
For me, Title IX proved to be a lifeline after this damage to my reputation and career. I learned the Supreme Court had decided in 2005's precedent-setting Jackson v. Birmingham that Title IX protects educators from retaliation when they challenge gender discrimination. In 2012, I became the first-ever non-sports university administrator to pursue justice under this provision.
My case resolved favorably this year with support from the American Association of University Women. My case spotlighted a reality that often gets lost in the heated debates over Title IX's role in promoting gender equality and safety on campus: That university employees trying to address sex-based discrimination, including sexual assault, too often have their hands tied by administrators who pressure them to sweep problems under the rug.
I stood up in higher education. But it was too soon: I was alone and my voice was not heard. I speak out now because university environments deserve at least the same protections as workplace environments.
The silence breakers of the #MeToo movement have shone a powerful light on predatory sexual behavior in the workplace.
We're finally talking about the fact that 48 percent of women have reported some form of harassment in the workplace. That's a good thing — but we risk forgetting that our colleges, unfortunately, serve as an incubator for sexual misconduct. The numbers of female university students reporting harassment is actually greater than in America's offices – more than half.
But unlike high-profile silence breakers like Salma Hayek or Fox News' Gretchen Carlson, campus survivors of sexual assault, and their advocates in the faculty or administrative offices, are fighting in relative obscurity. We need to amplify their voices and empower university leadership and staff to uphold Title IX – to get people talking about the rollback of Title IX and the Clery Act, and how to stop it, as much as we talk about Harvey Weinstein. The alternative – watching the next generation of female achievers thwarted by our failure to stop predators on campus – is unthinkable.